County Summit meeting accepts future of Workhouse Hospital

Hannah West of Bridgwater Civic Society who has been campaigning passionately to try to save the Blake hospital. Here featured on ITV.
Hannah West of Bridgwater Civic Society which has been campaigning passionately to try to save the Blake Hospital. Here featured on ITV.

After deadlock over the Christmas period, the future of the Blake Hospital – the former Bridgwater workhouse infirmary, was accepted as inevitable at a summit meeting today between Somerset County Council Estates team and  representatives from Bridgwater Town Council and the Bridgwater and District Civic Society.

After attempts to get Somerset County Council to incorporate the Victorian building into the new design for the proposed school on the Northgate site, it was recognised that County were going to demolish, had the power and authority to do this and therefore this decision paves the way for the much needed new school. The County accepted requests to reuse some of the original materials, provide historic interpretation and reflect the heritage of the site.

We reproduce here a record of that meeting

Present;- From SCC Richard Williams Commercial and Business Services Director , Strategic Managers Corporate Property John Houlihan, Charlie Field
Bridgwater Town Council – Cllr Brian Smedley, Cllr Mick Lerry, Cllr Pat Morley
Bridgwater & District Civic Society –Hannah West (vice chair)
Observer-Cllr Dave Loveridge SCC

Town Development Forum Position

Town Council Leader Brian Smedley puts the case from the Town Development Forum for consideration of Bridgwater's heritage
Town Council Leader Brian Smedley puts the case from the Town Development Forum for respect for Bridgwater’s rich heritage

BS outlined the position of Bridgwater Town Council regarding the Northgate Masterplan. Since the demise of the Tesco option BTC had been keen to work with SCC & SDC on a Leisure and Community led development on site. To reflect public opinion we had set up a Town Development Forum which comprised delegates from 28 Bridgwater organisations. This had engaged with both SDC and SCC and had taken an indicative position supporting the masterplan as follows. 100% support for retention and enhancement of green space, 100% support for Leisure complex on site of former Splash, 100% support for non-retail led development and therefore maintained compatibility with existing town centre, 50-50 views on school and therefore taking a position that SCC need to make a better case for the school on this site and 70-30 in favour of retention of the workhouse hospital, respect for Bridgwater’s heritage and incorporation of hospital building within new build for the school. He stressed Bridgwater Civic Society were key partners of BTC in this and HW would state their case.

Civic Society argues against demolition

Hannah puts her case directly to SCC property officer John Houlihan at County Hall
Hannah puts her case directly to SCC property officer John Houlihan at County Hall

HW said the Bridgwater & District Civic Society was concerned that SCC were ignoring the wishes of the people of Bridgwater and therefore needed to be totally transparent in their decision making process including the original promise to look into ways to retain the workhouse hospital. She was concerned that the decisions were financially motivated at the expense of heritage. She said the Civic Society position was to retain the hospital and they had lists of some 2,700 local people who had lived in the workhouse during its existence. CS would consider being involved in interpretation of the history of the site so long as this was meaningful and not tokenistic. She added that if Tesco had been built SCC would have had to look elsewhere for a school site anyway and that it was common to convert and reuse Victorian buildings elsewhere in the country. She also asked about the compensation from the Tesco deal to refurbish the building for a school

Town Council urge adaptation of original building

Historic photos of the hospital taken by Town Councillor Pat Morley
Historic photos of the hospital taken by Town Councillor Pat Morley

ML said the location was in an important heritage area on the celebration mile and urged SCC to respect this. He made reference to the Prince’s Regeneration Trust and pointed to other buildings around the country that had been saved and re-used mentioning conversions in Bath and Armagh. He urged incorporation of original materials and reflection of architecture in any solution including retaining walls or the shell of the building. He asked for evidence of the DFE requirements and the templates for new build educational premises they were working to.

PM had taken historical photographic records of the inside of the hospital and believed the rooms were of sufficient size to incorporate school rooms or if not if the building could be considered for other community use outside the immediate school brief. She urged that whatever came out of the project should retain the local and historical context of the current building and site.

County tied by new build school standards

County officers Houlihan and Williams having put their case for demolition of the workhouse
County officers Houlihan and Williams having put their case for demolition of the workhouse

JH said that Somerset County Council really had looked into all options to incorporate the building into the masterplan but really couldn’t make it work. There were National mandatory guidelines for new schools, classroom sizes and standards. They had looked but could not make this work in the footprint required. They could however look at retaining and reusing original material and they were keen to involve the civic society in the interpretation of the history of the site. He said the walls when built were ‘load bearing’ and couldn’t be reused as part of a new structure. They had to work to a DFE standard. They were however keen to avoid palisade fencing and were keen to blend the security /safeguarding“wall” along the celebration mile in with the heritage of the area by appropriately re-using original materials and working with CS for interpretation.

CF said they had worked with SDC on co-operative usage of the whole site to maximise community use and their own imperative was for a school and that this site was ideally situated, central and serving an area which was demonstrably in need. They were now mindful of the timetable for the delivery of this school which needed to be completed by July 2017. SCC and SDC were both signed up to the Northgate masterplan and this had to be taken into the planning process by March 2016 which was the next opportunity for community input.

Main entrance to the Northgate workhouse hidden by foliage today would be saved.
Main entrance to the Northgate workhouse hidden by foliage today would be preserved and the perimeter part of an ‘interpretation’.

Offer of re-use of materials , interpretation and recognition of historical context

RW said SCC could not incorporate the hospital into the school but could re-use some of the original materials. He said the Tesco compensation had gone into a general SCC fund and was not targeted and wouldn’t be as this was contrary to SCC policy. He accepted there was a financial element as they had to get the best deal for the public and conversion would add 30-40% onto the costs of the project. He said SCC had made the decision to retain the site for School use and not to dispose of it and was therefore clearly committed to considering community use and had listened to the public and worked with SDC into delivery of a masterplan to incorporate land within the ownership of SDC to provide for a comprehensive redevelopment of the wider site providing community enhancement. Further he stressed that Historic England had said the building was of limited value and SCC had been clear about this and hadn’t led the public on in any way. They had held off demolition last year after listening to the public and this had cost them in doing so but now they needed to bring matters to a head and meet the timetable for the school within the already agreed masterplan.

The Bell tolls for the Workhouse hospital
The Bell tolls for the Workhouse hospital

The meeting accepted that SCC would now proceed on their way forward, which, whilst not acceptable to everyone would seek to achieve the masterplan whilst recognising and interpreting the heritage of the town and ensuring future community use.

  • It was accepted that SCC would now proceed with demolition of the Blake Hospital to make way for a new build school in line with the aspirations of the Northgate Masterplan and within the broader context of widest possible community access and respect for the heritage of the area.
  • SCC agreed to re-use appropriate original materials from the building and to incorporate these into elements of the development, specifically the perimeter and along the celebration mile with acceptable and genuine interpretation.
  • SCC agreed that the Bridgwater Civic Society would be offered a key role in the interpretation of the history of the site and would be considered key stakeholders in this, working with SCC to reflect and represent the historical and heritage context, the people who lived and died there and the oppressive nature of the workhouse system of the period. SCC committed to fund this commemorative project.
  • In response to SCC’s position that there was no possibility of retaining or integrating the workhouse building into a new school – and indeed demolition will go ahead – the Civic Society have agreed to work with SCC on a meaningful and sensitive interpretation of the history of the site.