Widcombe Studio, Alton Place, Widcombe, Bath
Widcombe Studio (also known as Lyncombe Annexe) is an unlisted 19th century detached school building, formerly St Mark’s Infants School, situated within the Widcombe and Kennet & Avon Canal area of the Bath conservation area and World Heritage Site. It forms part of the streetscape setting of the 1830s Grade II St Mark’s Church, now St Mark’s Community Centre. Originally, the school building formed part of a pair with the Boys & Girls School to the south, but this was later demolished and rebuilt as the terrace on Alton Place in the late 20th century. The building is locally distinctive due to its Gothic style with mullioned windows and a gabled frontage, with an asymmetric projecting bay to the east. It is indicated to date to the mid-19th century from around 1856, though an earlier building is shown to have been on the site from 1839. A late 19th/turn of the 20th century projecting extension for the school hall was later added to the west, likely forming the old school hall. Due to its distinctive architectural appearance, visual prominence in the streetscape, and evidential value as part of a historic school complex likely associated with the adjacent Grade II church, it is recognised as a Non-Designated Heritage Asset (NDHA).
We note that the building is indicated to have been vacant for three years. From the photographs provided in the Heritage Statement, it is apparent that the building has been allowed to grow over and deteriorate (see in particular images EDP A1.9, EDP A1.6, and EDP A1.4).
The building has been subject to a number of prior planning applications. Permission was originally granted in 2007 for the change of use of the existing building to provide 9x residential units and 260m2 of employment space (see 07/02602/FUL). Application 22/01856/FUL for the demolition of the western hall and the conversion and extension of the building to accommodate 22x 1-bed apartments was recently withdrawn.
BPT previously submitted comments to application 22/01856/FUL, acknowledging the improvements that had been made in relation to the proposed extension, in comparison with pre-application drawings that were presented to BPT in 2017. We continue to maintain a general, in-principle support for bringing this NDHA back into a more sustainable, long-term use, where this would secure heritage gains such as the ongoing maintenance and repair of the building. The principle of residential use is considered to be generally acceptable, pending further assessment of the details of the proposed conversion works.
Where the provision of 7 3- and 4-bed houses is proposed, we welcome the provision of housing suited to families, but we have some questions as to how this house type would work in this location and the practicalities of limited off-street parking and a communal garden between an anticipated 21-28 residents (assuming 1-2 children per household).
Design & Appearance:
Regarding the proposed design of the extension to the north and west sides of the original school building, BPT recognises the improvements that have been made since the earlier 22/01856/FUL scheme, as follows:
• The revised design proposes a much greater setback from the principal southern façade, which is welcomed. The increased recession of the western extension wing would better facilitate the reveal of the western gable end than previously proposed, as well as helping to mitigate the impact of the increased massing and scale of the extension both on the main school building, and the surrounding residential grain of the area.
• The extension would overall be much reduced in its height, scale, and massing. The height of the extension’s southern roof ridge would be brought down to make it legible as a later, subservient addition to the main building. The omission of the flat-roofed infill between the northern portion of the extension and the main building enables the eastern gable end to continue to be read as a historic feature separate from later layers of development. The apex of the historic roof would remain the highest and most prominent aspect of the development.
We acknowledge the intentional intersection of old and new, allowing the proposed extension to clearly read as a later addition, however the relationship between the extension and the original building remains awkward. In particular, the western extension wing would cut off part of the western gable end, at odds with its original, intentional symmetrical balance and presentation. There could be an opportunity for a smoother transition point or link with the original building where this would have the added benefit of setting the extension further away from the building and facilitating a greater degree of separation.
Heritage Impact to a NDHA:
We note that the current proposals would retain a greater degree of historic fabric. The western gable end would be retained, as well as two bays of the southern frontage where this formerly acted as a link with the western hall – as part of previous application 22/01856/FUL, this aspect of the building was proposed to be removed to make way for the proposed western extension wing. We continue to encourage consideration of a balance between bringing the building back into sustainable use, whilst maximising retention and reuse of historic fabric and the original form of the building.
Where a squared-off doorway would be introduced at lower ground floor level in the southern elevation, this would sit uncomfortably next to the existing openings at this level. We encourage consideration of an arched door opening where this would suitably reflect the existing symmetry and repetition of the building as originally designed.
We previously highlighted the need for the comprehensive assessment and planning balance of the proposed rear extension and associated loss of the historic rear elevation. We reiterate that whilst the significance of the north elevation may arguably be marginally lower due to its limited public visibility, it remains part of the historic building envelope and indicative of the building’s plan form. The Heritage Statement provides limited assessment as to the north elevation’s existing appearance or contribution to the building’s overall significance, beyond it being of “plain and unsophisticated, with little in the way of architectural interest […] and nothing to either indicate or suggest that this north-facing side was anything other than the ‘back’.” Despite reference to “limited original/historic fenestration”, this is not elaborated on further. Development proposals would see the complete enclosure of the northern façade by the proposed extension, and some loss of historic fabric and detailing where openings would be created through the north wall at all floor levels. The scale of development as viewed from the north, though marginally reduced in height from the previously proposed scheme (see 22/01856/FUL), would continue to be significant.
We maintain ongoing heritage concerns regarding the proposed demolition of the western hall. Indicated to have been added 1885-1902 based on historic map progressions, the Heritage Statement notes that “there is much consistency between these two distinct phases of construction. […]The Gothic architecture of the Phase 1 School is also carried on into the Phase 2 extension, most obviously in terms of the anthropomorphic detail of the kneeler at the north-western corner and the rusticated arches to the basement windows.” The western hall remains a feature of interest where this may have been added to the school building within 30-40 years of its original construction, in a complementary architectural design and form. Considering the school hall’s architectural coherence with the main school building as well as its use as part of the original school complex in this area which has already been greatly eroded, we conclude that it may be attributed with shared evidential and historic value with the main building. The Heritage Statement has concluded the degree of harm to be “moderate”, resulting from the loss of the western hall extension as well as the northern toilet block added at a similar late 19th century date.
Proposals would therefore result in less than substantial harm where the western hall would be entirely demolished, and a cumulatively large volume of historic fabric would be lost from the north elevation and the building’s interior; “it is anticipated that the external walls and roof will comprise the only retained structural elements of the former school once the clearance works are complete.” There does not appear to be sufficient justification for the degree of harm caused, beyond bringing the building back into use. It is worth considering previous examples of permitted applications for the residential conversion of the building without the loss of the school hall (see 07/02602/FUL). We therefore question whether demolition is necessary to secure the “optimum viable use” (NPPF) of the building, or whether a scheme with greater retention and sustainable reuse of historic fabric may be possible.
There is a further question as to how much weight should be given to the proposed benefits of bringing the building back into use and associated remedial works, when it has been left to deteriorate for several years. Indeed, the Planning Statement indicates that there had been interest in the building from a mix of different occupiers, but the condition of the property was cited as one of the main issues for no uptake of the lease: “there were some enquiries from local educational establishments; gym operators; workshops; small breweries etc. However, even this alternative use interest cited the condition of the property and lack of commercial access as a major issue.”
In accordance with paragraph 196 of the NPPF, “where there is evidence of deliberate neglect of, or damage to, a heritage asset, the deteriorated state of the heritage asset should not be taken into account in any decision.” We therefore note that whilst the scheme would result in heritage gains associated with its use and repair (as set out on pp.40-45 of the Heritage Statement), this should be attributed a somewhat limited weight due to the apparent intentional neglect of the building. Where the Planning Statement goes on to say that “a viable use for the building must be found, otherwise it will continue to fall into disrepair and eventually become so dilapidated that demolition is the only credible option for the building”, this should not be considered as part of the planning decision.
In response to the Climate Emergency, BPT emphasises the importance of retaining and reusing existing building stock, wherever possible, to reduce the waste generated through development both in the creation and use of new materials, and the disposal of existing materials and their embodied carbon. We therefore encourage further exploration of the potential reuse of existing buildings.