Dorset County Council has confirmed that plans to demolish the iconic red brick St Martin’s House in Gillingham to make way for extra care housing for the elderly have been put on hold.
The council’s statement came after an intervention by county councillor for Gillingham David Walsh who said the council was taking ‘no further action’ to progress the demolition and subsequent development of that site.
This raised hopes in the community that the 19th century Thomas Hudson-built show house could be saved.
But in a statement read out at a Dorset CC meeting in Dorchester on Thursday, Councillor Jill Haynes, Cabinet member for Health and Care, confirmed that while the project had been put on ‘pause’, the council was still determined to go ahead with the scheme, under which St Martin’s House will be pulled down and housing association Magna Housing will build 59 so-called extra care homes on the site.
In a response to a question from Gillingham resident Mark White, Councillor Haynes said: ‘It has been agreed that the county council and Magna Housing will pause the demolition of St Martin’s House and the planning application for a new build on that site in order to allow further consideration of all the different factors and views that need to be taken into account as we move forward in the local area. It will also allow us to make sure from a health and care perspective the opportunity of the site is maximised.’
But she continued: ‘Magna Housing are our partner in Gillingham, and we have entered into a contract that has sold the land to them, Homes England funding has been secured to support the development and the scheme must be completed by March 2021. We must progress this scheme within these timescales as even now we have people unable to live locally and as independently as they would want and receive the care they need because of a lack of suitable accommodation.’
Councillor Haynes justified the lack of any consultation about the proposed demolition because this had not been required under the rules. And she said the council were also unable to carry out prior consultation as ‘it is unable to act on any outcome which entails the retention of the building as it has exchanged contracts with Magna Housing for the sale of the land. Magna Housing is contractually committed to providing an extra care scheme on the site.’
Councillor Haynes also explained why the county council – the current owners of the site – feel able to demolish St Martin’s House even though it is cited as a building that should be preserved in Gillingham’s recently-adopted Neighbourbood Plan.
‘It has been advised by the local planning authority [North Dorset District Council] that this listing does not carry any legal status and does not prevent the demolition of St Martin’s House,’ said Councillor Haynes.
Meanwhile, she said, Historic England had turned down an application to make the structure a listed building.
‘The county council considers that the assessment by Historic England on the merits of preserving St Martin’s House should be the definitive judgement given that it has been made by experts who have considered all the facts available,’ said the councillor.
Dorset County Council has not given any timeframe for the pause to the devlopment.
But it seems clear that as far as the council is concerned, the halt in the plans is simply a temporary stay of execution for St Martin’s.